AVONDALE, Arizona – On the toughest day of his most difficult NASCAR season, Kyle Busch endured several emotionally wrenching farewells Sunday to Joe Gibbs Racing, including one that was cruelly unexpected.
Among the most difficult of goodbyes came as Busch approached the yellow No. 18 Toyota he would drive for the final time in the familiar M&Ms/Mars livery that became his signature over 15 seasons.
“I couldn’t even look at my car to begin with because it was the last time I’m going to see it,” Busch said while getting choked up after a seventh-place finish at Phoenix Raceway. “It’s … it’s hard, man. It’s not easy. Just wish it wasn’t what it was or what it is, but I’m going to miss a lot of our fun folks that we got to spend a lot of time with over the years. Just look forward to new adventures.”
The two-time Cup Series champion and the rest of Joe Gibbs Racing were ready to put Phoenix in the rear-view mirror after racing through overwhelming grief Sunday.
Less than 45 minutes before the race, the team announced that Coy Gibbs, JGR’s vice chairman and chief operating officer, died in his sleep. The son of team patriarch Joe Gibbs had celebrated an Xfinity championship by his son, Ty, several hours earlier.
Busch learned of the news Sunday morning just after completing his hospitality rounds. Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota officials then held a meeting with its four crew chiefs and drivers, but Busch said skipping the race never was considered.
“That’s not in our DNA,” he said. “I think everybody always kind of says that. If it was a family member of mine, I would probably have still ran today because this is all we know. This is what we’ve grown up doing for life. And so I don’t think that was ever a question that we don’t run today.”
Busch was the top-performing Gibbs driver and fittingly finished just ahead of Denny Hamlin, who gave Busch a prerace hug on the starting grid.
“Denny and I, as much as we may not see eye to eye or see the same path sometimes, we do respect one another a whole ton, and we will forever,” said Busch, who joined the team in 2008 two years after Hamlin moved up to Cup with Gibbs’ No. 11. “I hope that we have the opportunity to race each other as we have as teammates at least.
“He’s really close to the family. He’s been there since the very beginning. So we were both emotional anyway at the start of it. We both had our reasons why.”
Despite all the emotions, Busch rebounded from one of the worst races of his Gibbs career (finishing six laps down in 29th because he was so slow Oct. 30 at Martinsville Speedway).
“Probably just the adrenaline, the focus and all of that stuff,” he said about how managed Sunday. “Once you put a helmet on, you’ve got enough stuff going on that you’re worried about and everything else. No different than anything of all the trials I’ve been through this year. Today was obviously the worst of it all. And the hardest of it all.
“Just gave it everything I had, and that’s all we had. Wish it could have been better. Wish it could have been a top five. Top three. Run a little bit better. But I’ll take the satisfaction in being the top Gibbs car today.”
He also will take away fond memories of Coy, whom Busch said “was a lot like me.” Coy Gibbs had moved into a management role at JGR in recent years since his older brother, J.D., had exited as team president after being struck by a degenerative neurological condition that preceded his death in 2019.
“Coy didn’t take any bullshit and told everybody the way it was and straight to their face,” Busch said. “I loved Coy for that and for his tenacity. He took on a huge role in filling the shoes of his brother and maybe a little more on the competition side than the business side in that respect, but he’s done nothing but try to push us all to go forward and win races and be competitive and to be strong and all that.
“Honestly that’s what I’ll remember most about him. But the majority of my thoughts and prayers are with Joe and the family. Everybody else. Heather, Melissa, all of them.”
Though he will leave with strong bonds (Busch gave high fives and hugs to all his team members before speaking to reporters), his last season with Gibbs was largely forgettable.
He finished 14th in the points standings (his worst since his 2005 rookie season with Hendrick Motorsports) with a career-low eight top fives.
Busch said the slide began with the 2020 season, which ended in a split from Adam Stevens (the crew chief for his championships in 2015 and ’19).
“Ever since the breakup with Adam, it’s just not been the same,” Busch said. “We were Jimmie (Johnson) and Chad (Knaus). We had that capability. Try to form that again with a new group, and it was never the same, but we were successful. We won some races. We had legitimate shots to win a hell of a lot more races this year than we got. But with this new car, man, you’ve got to be on top of it all the time.”
For the second season of the Next Gen, Busch will start anew in the No. 8 Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing.
Though his official start date won’t be until January 2023 (because of contractual obligations to JGR and Toyota that will tie him up through December and the NASCAR awards ceremony), Busch said he “already has started a little bit” at RCR (including some visits to the team shop).
He has been talking and texting with future teammate Austin Dillon about simulator work and hunting licenses. Busch even dropped a subversive RCR sponsor reference when asked about how he’d be reflecting during the plane ride back to North Carolina (“Maybe I’ll take some 3Chi since the season’s over and not think on the way home.”).
But the pall hanging over Sunday’s race also was a reminder of how tough the season had been.
“It’s got to turn around and get easier at some point,” said Busch, whose wife, Samantha, encapsulated the tumultuous weekend in a social media post late Sunday night. “I don’t know if that’s tomorrow or when that is. We’ve still got the banquet to get through and some other things with the family and all that.
“But this makes it all that much more tougher.”